Chris Adams travelled to Germany with some friends, a Ford Capri, and a camera.
As a member of the Wedgewood blue branch of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, to say I was somewhat excited when FC Watford (as it said on the card) was pulled from the pot to play 1. FC Kaiserslautern of West Germany in the first round of the UEFA Cup was an understatement. Our reward for finishing runners-up to Liverpool in the League the previous season was a first leg trip to an area I had some knowledge of. Ramstein Air Base was (and still is) the largest military establishment in western Europe, and I had spent some time there in the previous couple of years helping NATO to thwart the great Soviet bear from sweeping across the Eastern Plains and occupying the Free World. The town of Kaiserslautern, or K-Town as it was known to our US cousins, was in close proximity I knew its streets well. I knew where to go, but more importantly. I knew where not to go.
Now, every one of us who made that trip to Kaiserslautern has a tale to tell. If ‘I was there’ was taken as a measure of how many ‘Orns travelled to the game by train, plane, coach and car, I’m convinced that up to 50,000 made the trip. More conservatively, I believe those that travelled from SW Herts and its environs numbered around 10,000. Still a pretty impressive figure as less that ten years previously, we were lucky to see 4,000 at home games. For many, it was their first trip out of the UK and passports had to be applied for for the first time. I made the journey with Andy, my mate, and our respective partners. Andy drove…in his Ford Capri Ghia! Oh yes, we were traveling in style, don’t you know. Our experience that autumn of 1983 was not as eventful as some tales that I’ve heard (no doubt time-embellished), e.g. leaving to walk to the shops to get a pint of milk in the morning and by the evening being in some sleazy bar in Frankfurt supping Löwenbräu from the cleavage of a buxom wench from Lower Saxony. Or (my personal favourite) jumping off the official club coach transport to have a wazz and finding the coaches gone on their return and having to spend the next two weeks living off the land in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of West Germany before finally making their way home via Switzerland and with the help of the French Resistance (you understand the ‘embellished’ narrative now).
Our journey down on the first day was pretty uneventful to be honest (unless you count the broken fan belt just outside Calais), at least it was until we stopped to ‘overnight it’ in Luxembourg. What sticks in mind about that first day of travel is that we played SEJ’s I’m Still Standing over and over on the car radio/cassette player. Andy had a nice car, but his radio/cassette player left a lot to be desired and it wouldn’t rewind the cassettes. I swear I spent most of that journey with a pen in the hole on the right-hand side of the cassette winding the tape back by hand. It was the early 1980s and with regards to in-car entertainment, the struggle was real. So, Luxembourg. We hadn’t booked anywhere as we guessed that accommodation would be plentiful at that time of the year. What we hadn’t factored in to our planning was that a club from the north of England (who shall remain nameless) had paid a recent visit to the city of Luxembourg and systematically dismantled a thousand years’ worth of culture in one evening, and English voices were not welcome. Worse was to come in November 1983 as England fans rampaged through the city in some of the worst violence perpetrated by the English hordes up to that time. The message was simple. We don’t want you here, so best move on. We parked up in a supermarket car park and got what sleep we could in the car. By this time, I was ready to throw SEJ’s biggest hit of 1983 clean into the nearest river!
Next day. Game day! A couple of hours’ drive from Luxembourg and we were in K-Town. Six hours before kick-off and we were at the ground. Now, I can’t remember if we just walked in or we were invited in, either way, we were inside Stadion Betzenberg, on the pitch and sitting in the dugouts. If you’re a connoisseur of floodlight porn (…argh, just me then), you were in a state of ecstasy. Wow. Just wow! Kick-off came around soon enough (post a few bevvies of course) and we were rammed into a steep terrace behind the goal. The noise was intense and every rendition of ‘Elton John’s Taylor Made Army’ was supported by a volley of firecrackers being lit and thrown. Harmless enough, but they scared the shit out of you if one happened to land and explode at your feet. Luther was now an AC Milan player, but he was there that night and was warmly acknowledged as he made his way around the pitch and in front of the massed ranks of the Hornets travelling faithful.
The game passed in a flash. Kaiserslautern scored early, but Jimmy Gilligan equalised not long after (limbs!) and it was 1-1 at half-time. They were much stronger than us in the second half to be fair and they ran out 3-1 winners. Was it enough? After all, they were an experienced European outfit with internationals in their ranks, Hans-Peter Briegel and Andreas Brehme being prominent among them. We know it wasn’t, but that’s another story. We had a hotel booked in Kaiserslautern the night of the game, so after a few more bevvies in K-Town, we crashed out and drove back to the UK in a one-er the next morning.
As we know, we tore them a new one in the second leg at home and progressed to the second round. Bugger! Levski Spartak of Sofia. This was the 80s of course, with the Cold War still raging, and as a member of the Forces, I had absolutely no chance of being able to travel – it’ll have to wait until the third round, should we get there of course…which we did. Bugger! Sparta Prague and another place where I’d be unable to travel, it’ll have to wait until the fourth round. That didn’t happen of course, and it’s worth mentioning that, in my 50+ years of following the ‘Orns, Sparta Prague are the most accomplished side I’ve seen play at the Vic.
Kaiserslautern went on to win the Bundesliga in 1990-91 and 1997-98 along with a runners-up berth in 1993-94 to add to their German Cup triumphs in 1990 and 1996. Statdion Betzenberg was refurbished for the 2006 World Cup, is now known as the Fritz-Walter-Stadion, and bears little resemblance to the venue I visited in the early 80s. Kaiserslautern are currently cutting a sad figure compared to their former selves as they languish in the third tier of German football. A sad and rapid demise for a European club with such pedigree.
So there we have it, my tale of the trip to West Germany in 1983 to follow the European dream. Will we ever see its like again? I certainly hope so, but until then, us 50,000 who were there will always have Kaiserslautern.